Nathanial sat in the store room, again, watching as Liam and Nanny performed their tests, but this time it was on his blood. He found himself feeling more anxious than when he watched Nick's blood being tested, even though Micah and Nick both sat with him, and he subconsciously poked at the spot where Nanny drew the blood as if the ache it caused was a welcome distraction. Perhaps it was. Half the glyphs in the north-facing line were illuminated at this point.
Liam looked back over his shoulder at Nathanial. "If you are using any magic, please stop."
Nathanial shook his head, baffled. "I'm not."
Liam frowned and examined the bowl he held again. "Then if you are doing anything supernatural in nature, no matter how small it may seem, please stop."
The eldest Marks pup shook his head. "I-I wasn't doing anything. Why?"
Liam's frown deepened. "Is Snow around?" Nathanial shook his head once more. "Zhaohui?" Nope. Liam looked at Micah and Nick. "Are either of you doing something?" They both solemnly shook their heads. Liam put the bowl down and pinched the bone between his eyes. "Please leave the room, Nathanial. Perhaps go so far as to exit the basement, closing the doors behind you to activate the wards. I did not have this trouble with Nicholas's blood, and I am doing the exact same tests."
Nanny finished her spell and jotted down her notes while the three pups stood. "Wait a moment, boys." They did. She kept her eyes on her notebook and asked. "So what's this about?"
Liam picked the bowl up and gestured at her with it. "Five times I have checked the results of the test for vampiric markers, and five different results I have found. I have not had this trouble with Garret, nor with Nicholas, nor with anyone I have ever tested for anything. Redo the spell you just cast and see if the wards we crafted protect the sanctity of the test; if it does not then we can be quite certain that the problem is in the blood."
Evil satisfaction illuminated Nanny's face and not in a flattering way. "Oh? So your vaunted archaic medicine is useless? The oh-so-wise Ancient One is stumped?"
Nathanial cut in before this escalated. "Just do it, Nanny. You don't need to be snide about this; he made a perfectly rational and valid request."
His grandmother shifted on her pillow. "I can, dear, but these spells aren't your simple Mage Light spells. They take time, concentration, and energy. It's going to be a challenge to get Micah's done tonight, and it's doubtful I can get Garret's done. That's without casting each spell four or five times per person."
Liam waved the wooden bowl again. "And if the results you just obtained are suspect? What benefit would they be? We may very well end up crafting a cure that makes the problem worse or even proves fatal. My first result showed markers in Nathanial's blood more powerful than in a pure Vampire. I could not believe that, so I rechecked and found no markers. I did not redo the test on a new batch of blood, nor did I even redo it on the same one. I just examined the results again and got as completely opposite of a result as possible!" He sounded like he was ready to start hurling things or sweeping bottles off the counter. "And not one of the ensuing checks matched a previous!" He glared at Nathanial like it was his fault. Maybe it was. "Not one! Such a thing is impossible!"
Faelen trotted into the room, followed by Geoff. Faelen took the bowl from Liam and put it on the counter while Geoff hugged Nathanial. The Mist Spirit gently bopped Liam's shoulder with a fist. "Calm down, Sensei. I know you're frustrated, but we don't want to upset Nathanial again."
Liam looked immediately chastened. "No, we do not." He sighed, closed his eyes, and took a deep breath. "I am sorry, Nathanial. It is just that..." He gestured at all of his bottles and stuff. "This should not be. It flies in the face of--" He stopped talking and stood up. "I need to take a walk." He patted his torso. "Where's my journal?" He raised his voice. "Aoife! I'm going for a walk! Do you want to keep me company?!" He looked at Faelen. "How about you, Den?"
Faelen grimaced. "Liam. Twenty-first century. We're in Nova Scotia. I'm Faelen."
Liam matched his expression. "Of course, my apologies."
Nanny smirked. "Someone has fleas under his collar. Go take your walk, pup."
Nathanial obliquely watched Liam as the Rottweiler spun on his heel, his eyes burning as he confronted their grandmother; Liam must be really worked up. The reference to Aoife and the emergence of Lowell probably showed how much he was thinking about her. Possibly -- if not almost guaranteed -- because he wondered if she was pregnant and he'd find out in a few days.
Nathanial held his paw up to stop Liam from snapping at the elderly Demon Mage; he knew being called 'pup' was a sure way of raising Liam's dander. "Nanny, start casting and leave him alone. You two aren't in a competition or working against each other. You're both trying to help my brother." He looked squarely at Liam, now. "Go walk if it'll clear your head some. Take Faelen with you. Geoff can go back upstairs and ask Dirk if he'll make a light supper; I'll probably be down here for quite a while." Nathanial rubbed his chest. "I've still got to write out the grocery list, which means I need to talk to him, and then make sure the..." He shook his head. Priorities. This, the blood tests, had the highest one, so there was no point in even worrying about the rest. "Fuck it ah...um, fudge. Fudge it all." Nathanial hung his head, embarrassed, when Nick burst out laughing. Everyone else looked at him with varying levels of concern.
Nick copied Faelen's earlier gesture by lightly punching Nathanial's shoulder. "Relax, bro. Go deal with the meal stuff if you need to. Micah and I can keep Sensei and Nanny from killing each other. Besides, Sensei needs you out of the basement anyway, so just take the opportunity to work on other things."
Nathanial nodded and secretly wished Nick didn't mean that bit literally -- the 'keep from killing each other' bit.
Geoff wrapped his arm around Nathanial's waist, his paw 'accidentally' rubbing over the Akita's rump. "Come on, Pup. Let's go see Dirk while Liam cools down." He walked toward the door to the living area, and called over his shoulder, "Go with Liam, Faelen. Keep his head in the here and now." Faelen nodded and led his boyfriend to the back door.
Nanny looked back at the warding circle and sighed. "To quote my grandson, 'Fuck it all.'" She began casting the first spell again.
Nathanial cast his mind out to Nick while he happily walked off with his handsome prince. *Nick, remember that one of you has to stay with her, even if Liam isn't there. She can't get the opportunity to take our blood out of the basement: yours, mine, or Micah's.* She hadn't taken the Changeling's yet, but if Nathanial was screwing up the readings, he mightn't be able to stay around to watch things personally.
*Yeah, yeah. I know, Nats. I wish I had a TV in here.*
The eldest Marks pup began trotting up the stairs ahead of Geoff; he could tell the Wolf ogled him as he went. *You could help Micah with his spelling or get a book to read. You could, if you dared, get Micah to explain his Halloween plans to you, too.*
Nick snorted in amusement. *Right, because a hyper Micah is no distraction at all. Sensei and Nanny wouldn't be able to concentrate with him bouncing off the walls.*
Nathanial smiled. *Just an idea. I'm switching over to Dirk; send me a text or use the com if you need me.*
*Sure, Nats. Whatever.*
Dirk and Conor came downstairs to the kitchen right away. Dirk and Nathanial immediately began going through menus for the week, while Conor had a laptop and seemed to be working on finance stuff. Geoff wandered into the music room and plinked away on the piano for a bit before hesitantly playing some simple songs.
Nathanial talked to Dirk over the course of the next hour, preparing for the week and making supper. It sounded like all of Lowell's family wanted to come over for at least one day, not that he could blame them. Even Muireann's son, um, An-v'yar-takh, with the middle bit sounding pirate-like and the end all scratchy and throat-clearing, wanted to be here. Nathanial had to ask how to spell his name and had no idea how 'Ainbertach' could end up being pronounced like it was. Dirk merely laughed and said that was the simple spelling. Dirk and Nathanial decided to have a big gathering on Saturday before the hockey game. That would let Kiera be there and give everyone more time with Liam, as school wouldn't interfere.
The family wanted to come over for a 'meet-and-greet' Wednesday, too, for an hour or so to introduce the spouses and Ainbertach to Liam, as well as cover the whole, 'gay Dirk and Faelen thing.' The Bone Spirit looked less than thrilled about that.
Meals sounded like they wouldn't be a huge problem. No one had allergies or picky habits to work around, and Lorena and Aoife would be making the midday meals for the O'Conalls. The biggest issue came up while Dirk and Nathanial hammered out the Saturday tea plans. Conor received a phone call from his father, and it was a request for permission to join the O'Conalls' main meal with Avery, Gwen, and his wife Neasa. The Alpha even, according to Conor, offered to sit quietly off in some corner, and that no one need worry about his presence; he just wanted to introduce Neasa to Nathanial. The Akita decided Alpha McDougal could sit near the Markses off to one side and leave Liam and Faelen out in the position of honour; Nathanial figured he needn't be at the 'honoured table,' even if he was the host. Besides, it would make it easier for him to sneak off to the kitchens or wherever, if need be.
Nathanial's phone beeped, and he decided to check the message before he got too wrapped up in planning the week again, and in it Nick said that they were done with Nathanial's and Micah's blood work. So, unless they got Dad's blood, Nanny was finished for the night. She was really tired, but she said she could probably test Garret's blood, too. Liam had burnt the remaining blood samples already. Earlier, the two researchers had set out their plans for after they'd gone home: writing out their raw data, sending it to Nathanial to forward on, and analysing their findings. They both insisted on using Nathanial as a middleman, so they didn't know the other's e-mail addresses or phone numbers. As if that was some sort of protection. They also both insisted that he promise not to read anything until they came to a conclusion.
He typed out, 'I'll call Dad now. It's late enough here that it isn't too early there.' He didn't wait for a response and dialled his father's number. He raised his phone and turned to Dirk, who stood by the stove stirring the hot and sour soup. "I'll be a bit, Dirk. I need to talk to Dad." The Bone Spirit dipped his head in mute acknowledgement; the poor guy found it almost impossible to unwind in the slightest with Nanny in the house.
It rang a few times before Garret answered. "Hi, Nathanial. Good timing. Come on over."
Nathanial felt a little confused, but trotted downstairs. "Um, okay. I was going to ask if you could come over here for a bit. We need a, um, sample from you for some tests." He figured his dad would assume a semen sample, but he didn't want to say 'blood' around his father either, so he clarified. "Ah, from your arm, with a needle, not some other--"
Garret cut in. "I know. Sensei sent an e-mail. I wanted to show you something quickly, first, in a nearby store." He sounded a bit ill for a moment. "I... Ugh. I'll do that, the thing, after."
Nathanial stepped through the laundry room to say to those in the storeroom, "I'll be a few minutes, guys; Dad wants to talk to me about something." Nanny stopped in the middle of a stretch to nod; she stood with her paws pressed against the small of her back as she bent backwards. Nick stared at his phone and waved idly at his brother. Liam still sat on a stool by the bench and didn't respond at all; he must've been deep in thought, probably running through all of the data he'd acquired from the tests.
Micah stopped bouncing the backs of his hindpaws off the legs of the stool he sat on and chirped, "Okay! Say hi!"
Nathanial nodded, peeked through the phone, and took a deep breath. He closed his eyes in deep concentration as he carefully began folding the space between Taipei and Halifax as widely as he could. He pushed himself to cut the number of folds by at least a quarter from the first trip, but failed, if only just. Still, it was a lot better. There were fewer distortions, at the very least. He staggered through and let the portal collapse behind him.
Garret caught him by the arms and led him over to a king-sized bed. "Are you okay?"
Nathanial nodded, and tried to steady his heart and breathing. "Gods, that took a lot out of me."
His father's brow furrowed in concern. "Will you be able to get home? I didn't think it'd be a problem if you came through quickly. You sounded fine, if a bit scared, when I called after you sent me here."
The younger Marks shrugged and flopped backwards onto the rumpled covers of the soft bed. The room was really quite nice; it didn't match up to the suites on the top floor of his house, but it was a lot richer than the second floor ones. He hadn't really seen all that many hotel rooms outside of television, so there wasn't much to compare it to, but he thought it looked very...western. Not the Wild West, but, well, something he'd expect in Halifax or London. "I'll be fine in a bit. I tried to increase the amplitude of the folds in space in order to reduce the number of tears I had to make by twenty-five percent. It made the portal a bit more stable, and it had fewer distortions, but by Ponos, it was tiring."
Garret looked at him sharply. "By who?"
Nathanial raised his head. "Ponos. The god of labour and toil. I heard about him..." Now where did he learn that name? "Well, I can't remember. Maybe from Liam." No, probably not Liam, but he didn't want to say Mr. Doull, even though Dad probably wouldn't care much anymore. Nathanial dropped his head again and stared at the white ceiling. "So, um, if Liam sent you an e-mail, I'm guessing he told you some of what's been going on?"
The handsome adult leant back on his elbows on the bed, so he was more in line with his son. "Yes. I've already sent a message to the school nurse, the office, and Margaret, ah, your teacher, Ms. Paul."
"Eh?" Nathanial had no idea what this was about. "Why? I can't stay here long; I need to get back."
Now his father looked confused. "Stay? No, why would--?" He shook his head. "Sensei didn't say anything to you. You're not going to school tomorrow, and possibly not for the rest of the week. Your teachers will send you your homework, and your friends will bring you notes from the lessons, but you are staying home and relaxing. Sensei will be talking to his former wife, Lorena I think he said, and everyone will be informed that if he thinks the visit is too taxing for you, they'll be going home then and there."
Garret frowned sternly. "No. No 'buts,' no excuses. Sensei is extremely concerned about your stress levels, and so am I. Do you want to go in for surgery? Do you want stronger medicine, stuff that will almost be guaranteed to lay you up for a month or longer? Sensei sounded very emphatic in his e-mail, and as your father I still have the right to be a part of the decision-making process. You'll stay home tomorrow, and rest."
Liam must've thought the incident at supper was far worse than he let on. Then again, Liam didn't say Nathanial was fine, Nanny did, and she'd have no trouble lying. "I-I was going to go to the funeral tomorrow."
"Funeral?" His father clued in before Nathanial could answer. His tone, however, sounded a lot like it used to: almost contemptuous, dismissive. "Ah, the Markham pup's funeral. I don't see any reason for you to go. It'll only get you even more worked up, and that's the last thing you need, Nathanial." Garret sighed heavily through his nose after a moment of contemplation, and his tone sounded like the new Garret again. "Talk to Sensei and Conor. If Conor will escort you, and he swears to make you leave the moment you look overwrought, then you can go. I think it's a bad idea, though." He shook his head and suggested hopefully, "I know you planned on it from the moment you heard it'd be public, and I know you said it'd help bring closure since you found his body, but there'll be a lot of coverage in the newscasts and such. Can't you just look at those, instead?"
No matter what Nathanial did, whenever he thought of Donny lying there in the casket he saw Nick, instead. Not going to Nick's funeral? Tears leaked from his tightly shut eyes. How could he not go? Maybe, just maybe, seeing the casket with Donny's picture on it, with people -- Donny's family -- standing there talking would keep Nick from taking the Weasel's place. In his mind, not in reality. Because Nick wasn't going to commit suicide. Because Liam was right; nothing Nathanial did or didn't do would change the Fates' plans. Nick was still alive.
His father climbed off the bed. "Come on. Stewing won't change anything. I actually wanted you to come here to see something I thought you'd really enjoy. I promise you'll love it." Nathanial's eyes reflexively flicked over his father's backside, but he brought his eyes up to Garret's face before the adult finished turning around. "Up, up." Garret seized one of his son's paws and hauled him to his hindpaws.
The businessman grabbed his suit jacket -- with Nathanial now just realizing Garret was dressed and primped for a meeting -- and they left the suite. The hall had a patterned carpet with really nice bits of art on the walls. The doors -- after a bit of extrasensory scanning -- were made of steel, with wood panelling, and Nathanial could tell the visible cameras were outnumbered two-to-one by the hidden ones. The two Dogs made their way to the elevator, tracked by the obscured lenses. It creeped Nathanial out.
Inside the box, Garret hit the button for the lobby. His room was on floor thirteen of nineteen. Again, Nathanial could tell they were being watched. He scanned the hotel and found the security room, but was gratified to see the guard wasn't actually watching them; the Rodent -- some sort of fuzzy Mouse-like Fur Nathanial couldn't recognise, maybe a Pika -- seemed more intent on the television drama unfolding on his Samsung tablet than watching the monitors.
The lobby of the Okura Prestige, the hotel where Garret was apparently staying, impressed the young Akita. White marble tiling, white walls, and even a gigantic white and silver chandelier hanging from the roof of the second floor, which actually dangled so far down that the bottom of the fixture hung below the level of the surrounding mezzanine. Tan and brown furniture on red and orange carpeting broke the starkness of the white, as did the red flowers in dark vases scattered along the walls. Dad paid no attention to his surroundings and promptly led Nathanial through the lobby and out onto the street.
The noise! Gods! Ten lanes of traffic -- rush hour traffic -- rumbled in front of him, and scads of Furs bustled about on the narrow sidewalks that seemed to double as parking lots. Buildings ran the gamut of the shiny new hotel he just stepped out of to decrepit apartment buildings adorned with rusty window air conditioners. But perhaps the most shocking thing was the smell. Smog, dust, oil, exhaust, unfamiliar restaurant dishes, and hints of plants that he'd never heard of. Little details reminded him of Tokyo, but overall, it still bore little resemblance to that city, other than it wasn't Halifax.
Garret grabbed his arm and began leading them down the street. The adult leant in and spoke loudly to be heard over the din. "Telepathy!" Nathanial switched it on to hear, *...close. Taipei is fairly safe, but it's extremely easy to get lost in with this many people. We aren't going far, just a block this way and one north.*
Nathanial nodded silently, too overwhelmed to answer. He noticed that people seemed to pay them no mind. He thought they would, what with them being two foreigners, but he saw several Akita walking around in business suits, and many teens wore the same clothes his peers in Nova Scotia did. The two Markses didn't stand out in the slightest; really, they stood out less here than at home. *Dad, why is our last name Marks? We're Akita; it seems a little odd.*
Garret glanced at him sidelong, but kept most of his attention on navigating the throngs of pedestrians. *My mother was Rosemary Suzuki; she was the first in her family to marry a non-pure-blooded Japanese person. My father's side of the family has lived in Vancouver for many years, not counting the time they lived in an internment camp during World War II, and they've married into Japanese-Canadian families for several generations. The English part of our genes have been mostly been replaced by Japanese. We used to be Staffordshire Bull Terriers, which could explain Micah's colouration. I'm not very familiar with the McKay side, but it sounds like Akita genes are a very recent addition to their family.*
Nathanial stopped, dumbfounded. *Our family lived in a concentration camp? Canada had concentration camps?*
Garret pulled him off to the side of the walk. *Internment camp, not concentration camp. But yes, the Japanese-Canadians were forcibly removed from their homes, had their assets stolen, and were locked away in remote settlements from 1941 to 1949. Dad spent the first three years of his life in one. Nothing like that existed for the German-Canadians.*
Nathanial's head felt like it hadn't stopped spinning since he arrived here. He'd never considered himself anything but Canadian. No prefixes, just Canadian. Had that changed? He shook his head. No, not really, he was Canadian before anything else, even a Mage. *Oh. I had no idea. Um, well, let's keep going. I need to get home, and you must have meetings to go to.*
His father led him around a corner into an open laneway bordering on a large park. A few of the trees tickled his senses, but there were no visible manifestations of magic or magical beings around them. Perhaps they had Dryads or similar spirits? Nathanial didn't get to poke about too much, because at the next corner -- beside a café that was nice enough to have an English sign advertising tea and coffee -- they turned again to walk back in the direction of the hotel. The din diminished noticeably once they took a few paces down the barely car-wide alley.
Scooters and motorbikes stood crammed cheek-to-jowl on the side of the alley, leaving barely enough room for people and cars to pass by, let alone room for customers to get into the tiny shops scattered along its length. On his left, in an area that looked to be cut out beneath the main building, was a mini parking lot with enough space for five cars. Some ingenious person had constructed small ramps in the parking spots so the 'larger' sedans, like Honda Accords, could back onto them and get the front of the car out of the alley. If they pulled straight back without the ramp, they'd be too long to fit. Talk about tight quarters. A bakery sat next door, and next to that a... Huh. What was that? The sign showed prints of a Cat's paws and hindpaws with odd patterns drawn on them, and a picture of a beach with the same prints 'walking' along it. Inside, the proprietor had what looked like massage tables.
Nathanial exclaimed, "Ah!" and blushed when his dad looked at him. Nathanial pointed ahead to the shop. "They massage paws and hindpaws. The sign is saying that it's a vacation for your hindpaws."
Garret grinned. "It's called reflexology. It's like a mix of acupuncture and massage therapy. It promises lots of things, but it feels great, whether or not it actually works. We're not going there." He pointed to a dingy sign across from it. "But there. It sells antiques mostly, but I saw a section I thought you'd like."
Nathanial scanned it as they approached. The majority of the shop contained old furniture, carvings, and pottery. Gods, there were some gorgeous pieces mixed in with stuff that looked like they'd seen better days and should be retired to the landfill. The bell on the door jingled when Garret pushed it open.
Nathanial hadn't finished perusing the wares, but his senses were drawn toward the back when a lady's voice called out, "Ni hao!" That must be some greeting or an 'I'll be right there,' thing. Garret answered with the same words and continued on in Chinese. A greeting, then.
The voice belonged to a strange creature hidden under an illusion. Her apparent form was a Li Mao Cat, a golden brown tabby clothed in a fairly tight red and gold dress that brushed along the floor. In reality, the quadruped had a leonine body covered in whitish-grey fur, a draconic head, and a pair of antlers. The nose of the creature was very broad, covering the whole width of her muzzle, which in turn was as wide as Nathanial's head, and her mouth looked like it could open as wide as a hippo's. In both reality and the illusion the entity stood about Liam's height and wore a silver chain around her neck that held a jade dragon pendant. She hobbled on her hindpaws around a bookcase crowded with porcelain dolls, smiling broadly at something Garret said. She looked at Nathanial and asked a question.
Garret answered and turned to Nathanial. "This is Zhen. She owns the store."
Nathanial bowed. "Good morning, Zhen. It's a pleasure to meet you."
She inclined her head; she would probably tip over if she tried to bow any farther. Her thick accent and halting speech indicated she likely knew very little English. "Honour is mine, Nathanial."
How could he ask what she was without being rude? She obviously knew about the Hidden World and magic, but you couldn't just pop out and randomly ask, 'So, what are you?'
He didn't get a chance to think very long, because his father gripped Nathanial's shoulder gently with a paw. "This way!" He sounded like a kid dying to show off the coolest thing in the world.
Nathanial would've loved a chance to properly explore the whole store, but his father ushered him quickly around the various shelves, baskets, and larger pieces of furniture. Zhen dropped to all fours when the Akitas rounded a tall shelf, and padded to a wide stool behind the counter. She hopped onto it and sat primly, with her tufted tail slowly swishing behind her. Above her, on the wall, hung a plaque holding a cane -- Liam's cane.
He almost stopped and exclaimed in shock, but Garret dragged him around one last corner and pointed. "Here we are!" There, at the back corner of the store, stood what could only be described as a shrine. Nathanial's jaw dropped.
A stand to hold incense sticks took the lower centre position. The outer case of the box was comprised of a highly polished dark red wood, carved with a wide-winged phoenix in the middle. The feet of the stand were carved into phoenix claws clutching brightly polished white stones, what Nathanial guessed represented the pearls of wisdom often found in the mouths of Chinese statues of dragons and lions. Tiny carvings of five-lobed flowers adorned the bottom of the stand, possibly jasmine flowers, since he could smell and see some dried ones nearby.
To the left sat a marble statue, about sixty centimetres tall from base to tip, of an oddly familiar mountain monastery. The detail was exquisite; he could see tiny little lines in one of the courtyards for the breaks in the paving stones, tendrils of vines creeping up one of the walls, and even fronds of vegetables growing in a garden! To get that sort of fine work in marble would take ages! And on the right of it, almost hidden in the branches of a lush two metre-high bush, perched a life-sized statue of a Songshi Quan. The massive Dog stood balanced on one hindpaw, his left paw held in front of him, index and middle finger pointed up and palm out, and his right paw hefting a sword above his head with the tip of the blade pointing forward. The blade looked like the same type Liam used, a Chinese jian, but there weren't any distinguishing characteristics to judge by. The aforementioned bush grew out of a large white porcelain pot decorated with bright red phoenixes wrapped around the body, and white five-lobed flowers and brilliant green leaves like the bush had along the bottom. If the flowers were jasmine, then it stood to reason the bush was jasmine, too. The leaves of the jasmine plant were a deep, vibrant green, long and pointy with no lobes, and grew in pairs along the narrow branches with a longer leaf capping the end.
On a stand behind the incense box, in a position of reverence, stood a small jade statue of a Foo Dog. He wore the robes of a priest or monk and held a set of scales in one paw and a cane -- Liam's again -- in the other. A bunch of dried jasmine flowers had been scattered at his hindpaws. The crazy-intricate statue matched the size of the monastery and must've cost a bloody fortune. Fucking hells. Zhen had a shrine to Liam!
Nathanial whirled to face his dad and saw Garret trying to hold back his laughter. A whole bunch of books, some of them manga, were displayed on a bookshelf behind the horribly amused Akita. The covers of many of them showed either Li or Xun in a fighting stance on top of the silhouette of a phoenix. Another thunderbolt of realization struck Nathanial. Liam was the Phoenix Monk, a Chinese manga hero who was quickly gaining popularity in Japan. Another realization struck him right after: the restaurant in Halifax was named after him. When he'd first heard the restaurant's name, he'd thought it had to be a coincidence. Apparently not. Nathanial swallowed what he was going to say and looked around with a touch of awe. Prints hung on the walls, for fuck's sake! Prints of Li's and Xun's faces! Even one that might've been an attempt to paint Lowell based off a description! He couldn't really say how accurate any of them were, since he'd never seen reliable pictures before, but he somehow sensed that the prints of Li were very close and Xun's were spot on. Lowell's on the other paw... Beneath the bookshelves, action figures hung on pegs over a display case. A barrel of replica canes and plastic toy swords rested beneath that. Inside the locked case lay three metal swords, one of which looked identical to Liam's; the other two might be copies of other swords he'd forged. The sword looked spot on, as did the... No. Nathanial picked up one of the canes and examined it closely, noting several places it didn't match the real one.
Garret's grin widened. "You want to get that? This is about Sensei, right?"
Nathanial shook his head. "Nah, I was just seeing how closely the cane matched. There are some mistakes." He felt his face about to split from his manic grin. "Gods. He'd flip if he saw this!" The younger Akita started to laugh. "You're right. It is Liam. I recognise the cane and sword; he has the originals at his place. I feel like I've seen the statue of Song Li and the monastery before, too, but I can't place where. Oh, gods, this is too much." The sound of laughter drew Zhen from the far side of the store. Nathanial picked up two of the manga and flipped through them. "I've got some of these for him, or maybe a print of Li. I think that's one of Lowell, too. That'd be great for Faelen."
Zhen rose to her hindpaws before she came into sight and hobbled around the corner. "Help you?"
Garret plucked one of the manga from Nathanial's paws and another off the shelf. "These are the first two." He turned to Zhen and said something in Chinese.
The illusionary Cat ears perked up. "Know the Phoenix Monk? Stories reached Canada?" She pulled out one of Li's prints and began looking through the others.
Nathanial stepped up beside her and drew the Wolf one out of its cubby. "This one. Yes, there's a restaurant in my home town named the 'Phoenix Monk.' I didn't realize stories of him were so popular that he'd have action figures, though." Garret grabbed four of them.
The entity didn't respond right away, obviously trying to translate what Nathanial said. Garret quickly did so for her, and she smiled broadly. The smile looked a lot friendlier on the Cat face rather than on the very wide, toothy, dangerous Dragon face beneath the illusion. She could easily chomp his head off, if she wanted to. "Very popular, yes. Venerable Song lived two lives on mainland near Taiwan. Stories forbidden for long time under Communist-controlled China, but always told here in real China. Being told once more there, yes."
Real China? That must be a political thing. He knew there were lots of disputes between Taiwan and China, though most of what he heard was over whether Taiwan was a separate country or a province of the superpower. He'd have to look at it more when he got home. Instead, he asked a more relevant question. He pointed at the jasmine flowers. "I noticed that there were lots of jasmine flowers at the Phoenix Monk restaurant. What's the significance of them?"
Garret translated and she rattled off an answer in Chinese. The older Akita translated that in English. "She said that jasmine was Song Li's favourite flower. He had jasmine tea daily, even before it was a common drink, and served it whenever he welcomed visitors. The monastery grew dozens of large jasmine plants, too. Mostly, it came from the tradition his patients and followers adopted. Whenever someone wanted to offer their thanks, they'd bring a single jasmine flower to him, bow, and place it by his paws or hindpaws. The tradition has continued at shrines like this."
Zhen helpfully offered, "Dried jasmine flowers at desk. One for twelve yuan."
Dad converted that for Nathanial, too. "Roughly fifty cents, Canadian."
The young Mage looked at his father, hopefully. "Is it all right to get all these? And a pawful of flowers?"
"Sure. It's partly why I brought you here." Garret clapped his paw on Nathanial's shoulder. "Let's go. I need to hurry."
They brought it all up to the counter where Garret paid for it. Zhen bobbed a few times. "Thank you, thank you."
Dad winked at her and spoke flirtatiously in Chinese. The Cat put a paw by her muzzle and turned away bashfully, which looked a little odd beneath the illusion. Nathanial thought now might be the time to broach the topic. "Can I open the portal somewhere in the store?" Garret stared in shock and tried to shush Nathanial, while Zhen looked confused. Nathanial shrugged, grinning shyly. "She's not a Fur, Dad. That's just an illusion."
Zhen seemed to understand some of that. "Fur. Yes, Fur. Not monster. Not Demon, no."
The young Mage shook his head. "No, you aren't a monster or Demon, but you aren't a Fur. You remind me of Zhaohui, a Kirin."
Garret looked back and forth between them, utterly confused now. Zhen peered at Nathanial, and then she leant forward while the illusion stayed still. Nathanial raised his paw in front of her nose to keep her from getting within bite range -- well, bite-his-head range. She moved back and her tail flicked about irritably. "You are seeing, yes. What are you? Smell like Mage, yes, almost, but see too much."
Garret frowned at the both of them. "We're Mages." He spoke some more in Chinese. It sounded like he wasn't all that pleased that he'd been flirting with something other than what he thought was a pretty Fur. It took a minute or two of back and forth before both of them seemed to relax a bit. Garret turned to Nathanial and said, "She'll let us open the portal in the back of the store. Will you be all right opening two so close to each other? I can't stay in Nova Scotia for more than a few minutes; my meeting is a good distance away, and as it stands I'll be cutting it close."
Nathanial tapped his muzzle. "We can bring Liam here and he can take your blood." Garret blanched under his fur and swayed unsteadily. "Sorry. But, um, if I'm too tired to open another portal right away, we can wait until I'm strong enough. It won't leave you stranded."
His father nodded. "Good idea, Nathanial." He put a paw on the counter to steady himself. "I may need time to recover, too." Zhen asked him something, obviously concerned. Garret waved his free paw at her, and responded half-dismissively and reassuringly, probably saying he'd be fine. He asked another question.
Zhen hopped off the bench, and her illusion vanished. It looked like it was the pendant that held the magic, not Zhen herself. "Follow." Garret gaped for a moment, until Nathanial prodded him. Both Mages followed the magical entity to the back of the store.
The older Mage pulled out his phone and typed a message. Twenty seconds later his phone beeped, and he nodded to his son. "Sensei's ready; he's waiting near the wall by your room."
Nathanial closed his eyes, breathing deeply. He tried very hard to match the previous quality for his portal, but failed miserably. It didn't even match the first portal to Taipei. Fortunately, Liam leaped through immediately, but Nathanial saw three of those...things staring at him. Staring through blank, recessed divots where their eyes should be. Their decrepit combs wobbling as they struggled to break free of the tendrils of the Veil still holding them back. The tentacles that took the place of their beaks writhed hungrily and stretched toward all the magic lurking within those nearby. The portal disintegrated, and the young Mage collapsed, overcome by fear.
Liam dropped his medical bag and knelt by him. Those slender but strong arms held him close and pressed Nathanial's muzzle against the herb-scented fur. "Hush, young Mage. Yes. Safe now, no monsters, no danger. No, no, no. Very safe."
Zhen paced back and forth in front of the place the portal had stood. "Smelt Taint. Demons or pawns there." Her growls shook the very floor.
Nathanial whimpered but tried to calm her. "Grimoires. We have a Succubus Grimoire and my grandmother has a Demon Grimoire, too."
The broad nose of the entity twitched and she stared at them fiercely. Liam held his paw up and spoke as Liam, not Li. "Be at peace. My friends have been attacked by Demons on multiple occasions, but I am capable of removing the influence of Demons, whether by sword or cleansing potion. I am Healer Liam Smith. You seem most familiar. May I ask who and what you are?" He repeated it, Nathanial assumed, in Chinese.
Zhen's relatively small eyes narrowed. "Am Kao Zhen. Pixiu." Liam's arms tightened around Nathanial and his breath caught momentarily. Was that fear? The Pixiu didn't seem to notice. "Demons and pawns must die. Kill swiftly, Healer."
Nathanial pulled away from his friend. "D-Dad needs to go, Liam."
"Yes, of course." Liam smoothly turned to his medical bag and rummaged through it, as if searching for the needles and vials. He gestured over his shoulder toward a small two-person table. "Go sit, Garret. Remove your jacket, roll up your left sleeve, face the store, and have Nathanial trace the taijitu on your other paw."
Both Akita made their unsteady way to the table and followed his direction. Liam picked up his gear as soon as he thought Garret's attention was diverted enough. The bell in the front of the store chimed. Zhen rose to her hindpaws and tapped the jade pendant. She called out in Chinese as soon as the illusion formed, and hobbled as quickly as she could around the corner.
Nathanial whispered, "Liam, what's a Pixiu?"
The healer flipped open a straight razor and swiped it over the veins in Garret's arm. The older Akita winced. A tuft of fur fell away to reveal bare flesh completely free of damage. The Rottie took the needle in one paw and set the razor down with the other. A quick dab with an alcohol wipe, and Liam finally answered, "Legend makes the first Pixiu out to be the ninth child of the Celestial Jade Dragon." The needle slipped into a vein as the conversation further distracted Garret. He didn't even seem to feel it, though the buzz along Nathanial's jaw told him that Liam probably used chi to block the sensation. "They are...fierce. Dangerous. A single Pixiu could take on an army of Furs and win with a single roar. They have no magic, but their roar is more powerful than that of any dragon excepting the Celestial Dragons: the Jade and the Azure." He filled a second and then a third vial. "Their sense of smell is also beyond the vast majority of beings." A fond smile crossed his face. "Even Faelen's." The last vial slipped into Liam's pocket and the needle removed from Garret's arm. The Rottie tapped his finger over the wound, and Nathanial felt one last tiny tingle in his jaw. "It is done, Garret."
"What?" Garret looked at the bare spot and the tiny indent left from the needle. "I didn't feel anything."
Liam smiled smugly. "No, I did not wish you to. Now, be on your way, and I will watch your son until he feels strong enough to bring us home."
Garret stood and fixed his clothing. Once he was straightened out, the adult Akita hugged the younger one and licked his ear. "Take care, Nathanial. I love you."
Nathanial kissed his father in return. "Bye, Dad. I will, and you, too." Garret trotted out, leaving the two teens behind.
***This chapter was edited by Lycanthromancer*** The blood tests have finally begun on the Marks pups to see if there's a way to help suppress the effects of whatever it was the Succubus Beriatana had done to Nick. Unfortunately, that means Liam and Rosemary have to remain in close proximity to each other as they conduct their experiments. That's a situation neither of them is pleased with, and neither is Nathanial, who's stuck in the middle of their foul humours. They've finished Nick's test and are about to start Nathanial's, but it looks like they'll end up having to test Micah and Garret, too. Oh, joy.